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John Duncan

Born: 26 July, 1921, in Glencarse, Perthshire.

Died: 12 September, 2006, in Oxford, aged 85.

FIFTY years ago Jock Duncan watched the British and Egyptian flags descend for the last time when Sudan gained its independence. He was among the last of a small cadre of the Sudan Political Service who ruled over this vast and troubled territory until 1956. Duncan was the last man to go. His affection and respect for the Sudanese people never faltered and in retirement he watched with sadness as the country continued to disintegrate into civil war.

As a young district commissioner in his twenties, he was responsible for the Upper Nile Province, where he was often called upon by the Nuer people to dispense justice and wisdom. His stocky presence, ruddy complexion and wild eyebrows soon earned him the nickname of "Red Bull". He was on the road for months at a time resolving land disputes, settling marriage contracts, breaking up tribal fights. On one occasion he even administered an "anaesthetic" before an operation by punching a Nuer hard on the chin until he fell unconscious to the ground.

He grew up in Dundee, the eldest son of Rev JH Duncan, a Church of Scotland minister, renowned for his sermons. Yet Duncan jnr probably owed his writing and story-telling gifts as much to his mother, Sophia, who was a journalist. He attended George Watson's, Glasgow Academy and Dundee High School before going on to Edinburgh University to read Hebrew and Arabic. His studies were cut short by the outbreak of war. He volunteered to be a fighter pilot, but failed the RAF medical because he could not stand on one leg with his eyes shut without feeling giddy.

Later, when he went to the Sudan this did not prevent him learning how to perch on the hump of a camel and travel thousands of miles across the desert reading a book. His first camel was ex-army and had "No 55" stamped on its neck. He recalls in his book, The Sudan's Path To Independence: "I was to go more than 2,000 miles on Number 55 before I finished with him and gave him back to the nomads to live a life of leisure... I often conversed with Number 55, but I doubt if he ever knew me. He spent his time chewing; his large eyes focused somewhere in the far distance, and his mind concentrating on grave affairs in the camels' Never-never land."

His first posting was to Nuhad in the west, on the road to Darfur. Here, his Arabic helped him win the respect of the Hamar tribe. Every couple of weeks he would set off with ten camels, laden with wooden boxes and bedding rolls to visit a new region. There were no telephones or telegraph. Urgent messages were sent by cleft stick.

In 1946, he was transferred to the wildest province of all: Upper Nile. His friends in the service commiserated with him, but Duncan relished the prospect. After recovering from the culture shock of moving from Arabia to Africa, he spent two years mastering the Nuer language and even wrote a book on Nuer grammar.

In 1950, he married Sheila Conacher, a newly qualified doctor, in Khartoum Cathedral. Later, she accompanied him on his postings around the world and soon mastered the under-rated art of being hostess at diplomatic events.

After the declaration of independence in Sudan, Duncan joined the Foreign Office, where his diplomatic career took him to New York, Muscat and Canberra. From 1963-5, he was based in London as head of the personnel department in the diplomatic service.

He returned to Africa in 1971, when he became British high commissioner in Zambia. President Kenneth Kaunda, who was the son of a Church of Scotland missionary, joked to a mutual friend that he did not know what the British government was coming to - sending a son of the manse as high commissioner. Kaunda and Duncan had a healthy respect for each other, but it was a difficult time politically.

After three years in Zambia, Duncan's next posting was as ambassador to Morocco. After four years grappling with French, the language of official business in Rabat, his final posting was as high commissioner in the Bahamas (1978-81) where his beloved grand piano made its last journey before retiring with him to a flat in Blackford Road, in Edinburgh. Duncan had entertained guests all over the world with impromptu medleys from his eclectic repertoire. He hit the keys with a confidence and panache that mirrored his full-blooded approach to life. In his heart he was always the Red Bull.

His wife, Sheila, pre-deceased him and he is survived by his daughter Kirsty.

 
 
 

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